FESTIVAL IN THE DESERT – 2001, A Saharan Odyssey

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The truck just after the hi-jack attempt. (c) Nadia Nid El Mourid 2001

(At the beginning of January 2001, on the first full moon of the new millennium, a remarkable music festival took place in the depths of the Sahara desert in Mali.   The following is a subjective eye-witness report of the event.)

I first heard about the Festival in the Desert from Philippe Brix, the lean and indefatigable manager of the French global troubadours, Lo’Jo.   Two years ago, on his return from one of Lo’Jo’s regular trips to Bamako, the capital of Mali, Philippe told me that the group had minted a solid and friendly relationship with a band of Touareg musicians from northern Mali called Tinariwen, which means ‘deserts’ or ‘empty places’ in Tamashek, the ancient language of the Touareg people.   Philippe had also met a quietly spoken and well-informed Touareg intellectual called Issa Dicko.   Dicko was a member of Efes, an official association based in Mali whose goal is to further the political, social and cultural development of Mali’s remote northern desert regions.   After many conversations and cups of bitter syrupy tea they decided to stage a festival of Touareg music and culture in the desert around the first full moon of the new millennium.

Almost a year of ifs, buts, don’t knows and maybes followed.    Then in May 2000 a beautiful slim white book called ‘Tamashek’ published in France by Editions Deleatur came through the letter box.    It was an account written by Philippe Brix of a trip to Mali to prepare the ground for the festival.    He had completed a 3000 mile round-trip by Toyota land cruiser from Bamako, to Kidal in western Mali via Timbuktu and then back again via Gao.   He had met the top brass of Efes, and various other potential partners in the venture to discuss how the huge logistical problems of staging this event would be handled, and by whom, and at what cost.   Mohammed Ag Intala, honorary president of Efes and deputy for Tin Essako in Mali’s chamber of representatives, had announced that the festival would take place on an empty plain of sand near the ancient ruins of Tamaradant in the Adrar des Ifoghas.   Mohammed’s father is Intala, a sage old man who is leader of the Ifoghas clan of Touaregs and one of the lynchpins of the Touareg rebellion.   The location, which Mohammed had chosen for Takubelt, the name given by the Touaregs to the festival, gave the word ‘remote’ an entirely new meaning.   Philippe had joined forces with the organisers of a famous annual street theatre festival in Chalon-sur-Soane, central France and with the Association YO!, a bunch of veteran rave promoters in western France who knew all about the technicalities of staging musical events in unusual circumstances.    The finance would come both from Lo’Jo themselves and the Chalon-Dans-La-Rue Festival who had already declared that the 2001 edition of their event would have a Malian theme.  Further assistance came from French Cultural Centre in Bamako, The French Embassy, Credit Agricole and various French cultural quangos like ADAMI and AFAA.    There were also plans to spend a whole month in the Kidal region in the run up to the festival and record Tinariwen and other Touareg musicians.   Justin Adams, the English guitarist and producer of Lo’Jo’s two highly acclaimed albums ‘Mojo Radio’ (1998) and ‘Bohème de Cristal’ (2000), would be drafted in to help with the recordings.

Lo’Jo like thinking big.   Maybe that’s why they scare the mainstream French music industry, although it must be said that their distributor Universal did agree to contribute towards some of the costs of filming the event.  The green light finally came in October 2000.    Point Afrique, a French travel agency specialising in desert tourism, run a regular weekly charter from Paris to Gao in eastern Mali and they were responsible for transporting musicians, technicians, equipment and plain old festival ravers like myself to Mali.   On January 7th at the ungodly hour of 2am, I boarded their chartered ‘troop carrier’ with 100 or so other virgin travellers and Nigel Williamson, an English journalist who pens music articles for The Times, Billboard and Uncut amongst others.

The only thing that spiked my excitement was a gnawing apprehension about the general anarchy in the region north of Gao.    Touareg politics is like a labyrinth made of mud.   We had all been told that the Touareg rebels had signed a peace accord with the Malian government in 1997 and everything was now bathed in sweetness and light.   Peace in our time.   Young Touareg men who had lived for years in the bush on dates, camel’s milk, rebel philosophy and the dream of self-determination were happily rebuilding their lives as soldiers in the Malian army or teachers, administrators, politicians, even musicians.    Tired of war, they had accepted peaceful cooperation and development as the only feasible option.   Reports from the field weren’t so rosy.   Many of the rebels, either for noble ideological or purely practical reasons, had not accepted the terms of the peace accord and were refusing to hand in their weapons as requested by the Touareg leadership.    As far as they were concerned the black Bambara politicians in Bamako were still treating them like a sub-species, ignoring their language and culture, starving the Saharan regions of aid and development, embezzling funds promised by international NGOs and generally acting like they just didn’t care.    The cultural fault line that separates the ‘white’ Berber Touaregs of the Sahara from their ‘black’ sub-Saharan neighbours, the Songhai, the Bambara, Peul, Manding, Dogon etc, has groaned with underlying tension for centuries and that tension was still there, however sugar coated.   The murderous chaos of modern Algeria together with the internal politics of Niger and Ghadaffi’s wayward policies in Libya didn’t help either.    The whole region was playing Russian roulette.   Only a few months before Philippe Brix made his reconnaissance trip in March, three Dutch tourists were kidnapped and murdered, their throats slit and bodies burned on the road to Kidal.   Only a week before the festival an army checkpoint on the main Gao-Kidal road was attacked by bandits and several servicemen were taken as hostages.   Whether the perpetrators of these crimes were just opportunist muggers or uncompromising rebels fighting for their dream ‘by any means necessary’ I just don’t know.   It was said that the killers of the Dutchmen were lead by a renegade Algerian, possibly an ex soldier or GIA terrorist or both, and his gang possessed the latest vehicles and guns.    That’s the deadly fascination of the desert.   Outlaws, soldiers, freedom fighters and politicians play a game of cat and mouse in the vast and arid emptiness.   European political rules don’t apply.   It’s closer to the wild west.  A week is by no means time enough to equip you with the insight and knowledge of local power-struggles to be able to tell the difference between Dillinger and Che Guevara in these parts.

The 2001 Festival in the Desert site. (c) Nadia Nid El Mourid 2001

Gao airport consisted of a huge plain of sun-cracked tarmac and an adobe aircraft hanger.   Inside it was all screams and chaos but the human flow somehow carried us safely past customs and immigrations.   Nigel and I ended up in a group of 16 festival goers, all French apart from ourselves, under the wing of a local travel agency called Azawad Voyages who had hired four 4×4 Land Cruisers to get us to the festival site.   Our vehicle was driven by an imperturbable Songhai from Gao called Youba.   I found out that I had been mispronouncing ‘Songhai’ for years and it actually should sound something like “shongoi”.    Mahmoud Ben Ali, the young, ambitious and eager ‘patron’ of Azawad Voyages also rode in our vehicle along with Nigel, two French blokes called Thomas and Olivier, and myself.   Thomas was a loud brash jester with a talent for making people laugh and Olivier, by contrast, a quiet and respectful Parisian.    Due to the enforced underdevelopment, which the powers that be far away in Bamako have allowed to grip this part of Mali for decades, according to Mahmoud’s cursing observations, the road out of Gao was nothing more than a track, deeply rutted and treacherously sandy.   The drive to Kidal consisted of eight hours worth of bumps, jolts and searing sandblasted heat.   Youba held the road like a veteran, clocking up impressive speeds on the open stretches of hard desert plain.   He was proud of the fact that he had never once capsized a vehicle.    Along the way we passed two villages, each with their obligatory police / army checkpoints at which our convoy halted respectfully while Mahmoud kept the grim-faced fatigued officials sweet.   These hamlets were nothing more than a sparse collection of one-story adobe yards baking in the aridity of the midday desert.   They looked like Gods own gulags.   My overriding thought was simply, “how do people sustain life in places like this?!!”

Kidal is the local administrative centre of the northeastern corner of Mali.    In amongst its decomposing French colonial fort, its airstrip, market, brace of hotels and restaurants you can find most of life’s necessities, as long as you can distinguish what is strictly necessary from what is grossly western and superfluous.    After a day out on the desert trail a cold beer is the mother of all necessities and Nigel and I made for Bar Matthieu as soon as humanly possible.   Nigel’s appetite for cold beer, almost to the exclusion of any other kind of sustenance provoked great gallic laughs and good humor amongst our fellow-travellers and cemented his reputation as l’eccentrique anglais, an impression reinforced by Nigel’s sparse and yet original grasp of the French language.    English tourists are rare in these parts.   Mahmoud delighted in telling us that even the Touaregs mourned Lady Di.   We spent our first night in Africa on the roof of a house on the edge of Kidal just by the airstrip.    The moon was but a slither away from fullness and it flooded the night with brightness, making the stars hardly visible.

The famous cold of the desert night in winter only really bites in the wee hours of the morning, at which time anyone not in possession of a reinforced five-season sleeping bag will find his testicles shrunken to the size of nutmegs.    It’s friggin’ freezing, to put it mildly.   Nevertheless, the rising sun warms you as quick as an electric heater.   Breakfast was baguette, surprisingly crunchy and tasty in these part, and Vache Qui Rit.   Processed cheese and tinned sardines, along with the occasional treat like goats meat with macaroni, figured a great deal in our menus over the next few days.   After a trip to town to buy cheches, the famous Touareg headgear without which life in the desert is tricky if not unbearable, we left the town in convoy by the eastern track to Tin Essako.   Just before leaving we were treated to a titillating display of brute Ramboesque power as a convoy of about 25 Toyota Land Cruisers carrying the Prime Minister of Mali, four foreign ambassadors (France, USA, Canada and Germany), with entourage and bodyguards drove out of Kidal on their way to the Festival.   I suddenly felt like Mel Gibson in the film ‘Year Of Living Dangerously’.   At least two of the vehicles were upholstered with the biggest, deadliest mounted machine guns I had ever seen in my life.   Another three of the Land Cruisers were brimful of gun-toting young blades, heads wrapped in their cheches, and eyes masked by fake Armani shades.   They looked like Kurdish rebels I once saw in a newspaper article.    The convoy snaked its way through dust clouds and out of town, exuding a potent mixture of guerrilla chic and badly disguised paranoia.    This ‘official’ junket could be compared in its brazen sense of provocative diplomacy to a visit by Tony Blair to the republican sanctuary of the Falls Road in Belfast.   Our collective sense of awe and excitement was ratcheted up a few notches.

A tent builder at Tin Essako. (c) Nadia Nid El Mourid 2001

More dust, more juddering tracks, more dessicated landscapes.    As the convoy edged its way towards the plain known as In-Amadjel, where the festival was happening, the scenery became imperceptibly emptier, drier and eerier.    I realised that what I had been driving through the day before was not real desert, only the ‘amateur hour’ equivalent.    There were still trees, however mangled and skeletal and even shrubs, however brittle and parched.    Now we were entering the dead zone where even the merest hint of vegetation or habitation was absent.   This was the Teneré, the land of nothing, where wind and sun socialise with sand and rocks, glaring suspiciously at outsiders.   If the Americans really had faked the moon landings, this is where they must have done it.

Our vehicle lurched drunkenly over the brow of a low black hill and there it was…..the Festival in The Desert.    At first it was hard to see in the midday haze.    The site consisted of a line of about 20 brown nomadic tents and a small stage.   It seemed laughably insignificant in midst of the huge flat plain of earth bordered by dunes and hills, like a brown twig in the middle of an immense empty parking lot.    To the south, about fifteen minutes walk from the site itself, there was an arid grove of gnarled and thorny trees where we set up camp.   Some had brought tents but most of us just slept on mats under the stars.   Nigel and I went over to the festival site as soon as we could to meet our friends.    In one of the large nomad tents nearest the stage, about 30 Europeans had made their home and there we found Justin and all of the Lo’Jos as well as technicians, organisers, hangers-on and friends.   It was good to see Philippe, Denis, Richard, Kham, Yamina and Nadja from Lo’Jo and especially good to see Justin.   I gave him three bear hugs; one from his wife Mandy, one from his son Joseph and one from me.   Greetings were quickly followed by news.    Apparently we had just missed the arrival of the Prime Minister’s convoy.    About 20 camel riders had come out to greet the grand stranger and Tinariwen, the desert rebels, had insisted on playing a welcoming set on the stage with full PA as the convoy drew up to the site.    To pursue the Tony Blair in Falls Road analogy, it was as if Blair’s arrival had been greeted by a procession of unarmed IRA volunteers and an impromptu concert by Christy Moore.

There was more.    The truck carrying three tons of PA and lighting equipment from Gao to the festival site had been ambushed in the dead of night by 11 bandits, two of whom were armed with Kalashnikovs.    By heavenly chance the PA convoy was also carrying Kheddou, one of the guitarists with Tinariwen and a hero of the Touareg rebellion.   His body has been pierced by bullets a total of seventeen times, as a consequence of which he now walks with a limp.    It was he who had led the attack by small group of Touaregs armed only with swords and sticks on an army post near Kidal at the beginning of the rebellion and captured the arms and ammunition which allowed the uprising to take hold and develop.   Kheddou is known and respected throughout the Sahara.    He negotiated with the bandits for more than two hours, asking them where they intended to dispose of 3 tons of PA equipment in the middle of the desert and what their families, who Kheddou knew, would have to say about the matter.    In the end he managed to persuade them to let the convoy pass.   Disaster had been avoided and not a single shot had been fired.

Justin told me about the sessions in Kidal.    Together with Lo’Jo’s sound engineer, Jean-Paul Romain, he had spent fifteen days recording Tinariwen and Azawad.   Electricity is switched on between 7pm and midnight each evening and so the pair had this small daily window in which to record.   It certainly concentrated the mind.   Lo’Jo had performed a concert which was broadcast by the Tamashek radio station in Kidal.   Philippe told me more about the hardships involved in making the festival a reality.    The petty politics of Efes, and the other Touareg association, Assakok, had proved to be both a smoke screen and a stumbling block.    Quite understandably, local knowledge of event organisation was nil and a lot of time was spent patiently teaching the ABC of staging a concert to the local promoters.   When the band had arrived at the site it was soon realised that a stage had to be built out of concrete in the absence of scaffolding and wood.    Philippe managed to borrow the money from the mayor of Tin Essako, the nearest village, to buy the concrete.  A mason was brought in from Bamako and everyone worked solidly for several days to build a metre high platform.    The same mason also built a bread oven on the site, which kept everyone blissfully supplied with fresh crusty breakfast baguettes.   Even finding branches with which to erect the large nomadic tents was a huge problem because branches of the required length and straightness were like gold dust in these parts.    The arrival of the prime minister, who had been invited without consultation by Mohammed Ba, the local MP and President of Efes, had complicated matters, imposing a heavy military presence and the unforeseen straightjacket of protocol on the event.   I was introduced to the famous Ba, a huge man in royal blue jellaba and mountainous white cheche.    Size and authority are closely related in Touareg society.   He apologized for all the organisational problems and assured me that things would be better once the Prime Minister had gone the next day.   Nevertheless, despite all these trials and tribulations, I could see that Philippe felt like a hundred miles as he looked around him and said with a huge smile, “We’re here.   We did it!”

After dinner at our encampment, we headed back to the festival site for the official opening.   The light of the deepening dusk was magical across the plain.   The first full moon of the new millennium was already up in the eastern sky looking like a rising white sun.   The Touaregs say that a full moon in the desert has the power to crack boulders in half and drive people mad.   Near and far, the camel riders were out on their towering white thoroughbreds, piercing the horizon as if attempting to defy the awesome immensity of the sky.   Out on the plain a group of women, heads covered with black shawls, were huddled around a Tindé drum.    This simple long wooden framed drum loosely covered with goatskin is the emblematic instrument of traditional Touareg culture and Touareg musicians call their traditional music ‘tindé’ to distinguish it from the more modern electric and rock influenced styles.    Two women sit on either side of the drum padding out soft, mesmerising beats while their companions chant songs in a call and response style.    The sound rises up into the sheltering sky like a pulse of enchantment and is audible for miles.     We approached the group and stood by them while they played.    There were about six mounted camel-riders near the group, all dressed to kill behind their impenetrable cheches.    We didn’t seem to be upsetting anyone at first because there were other men standing with us and noone paid us much heed.    Then it was as if we weren’t welcomed anymore.    The camel riders who had been strolling at some distance from the group would come towards us, cantering in time with the women’s rhythm, and brush past us close enough to make those huge gliding hooves seemed terrifying.    In fact, a rider in full ceremonial dress atop a thoroughbred racing camel is a beautiful but not altogether comfortable mixture of grace and menace.   In general the Touaregs are friendly but reserved, impenetrable and a little haughty.   They only give you their eyes which leaves you guessing a lot and prone to pangs of paranoia.    There was nothing really aggressive in their behaviour.   It was a kind of menacing curiosity.    Walking across that plain left me wondering if I had stumbled into one of those huge epic Victorian orientalist canvasses.   Yet there was nothing really exotic about what I was seeing.    It was all too hard and tangible for that.

The festival started with speeches.    The prime minister and his court were seated on sofas.   Everybody else, stood, knelt or sat on plastic chairs.   There were about 50 to 60 Europeans and as many as ten times that number of local Touaregs.   The occasion was starched and formal.   It was as if some arcane Machiavellian game was being played out, with all the rules hidden from view.    News that army units were hidden in the hills all around us, there to protect the dignitaries, gave the evening a particularly potent charge.    We learned later that one of the famous bandit warlords, Ibrahim Banga, had slipped into the site incognito, face masked by his cheche, and listened to the speeches whilst posing as a good and peace loving citizen of the Malian republic.    The speeches were all “your honour”, “cooperation”, “friendship after war” and “our welcome foreign guests” delivered in French and then Tamashek.    Justin and the Lo’Jos were having serious first night nerves.    Deciding on a running order had proven to be a task requiring very fine diplomatic skills as each Touareg group vied for poll billing, keen for their group, their region and their tribe to be seen in the best possible light.    Justin had landed the job of stage manager by default and he rose to the challenge with defiant enthusiasm, attending tirelessly to the musicians’ technical and ‘political’ difficulties.   Stagecraft, as it is known in the west, was something new to the Touareg groups.   The whole idea of taking the stage, connecting with an audience, running through a predefined set of songs, encores and then goodnight is unknown.   To them a performance is just an ‘at home’ session transplanted onto a stage.    The musicians chat amongst themselves and with the audience, tuning up for hours, strolling across the stage and generally taking things very easy.    Nevertheless when a performance was in flow, then there was no mistaking the passion or the skill.    Who needs stagecraft anyway?

The opening act of the festival, a traditional ‘tindé’ group from Tessalit on the Algerian border, took the stage in just such a fashion.   The music spluttered hesitantly into life but when once the engine was definitely turning over, the effect was mesmerising.    I remembered just how captivating the polyrythms of Malian music can be….pure rhythm without definite beat.   The air was cooling and darkening all around us.   Despite the best efforts of Lo’Jo’s dedicated lighting engineer, Jerôme Lubin who had moved heaven and earth to bring a small but respectable rig across oceans and deserts, the light show was surpassed by one far greater.    The day before I had been joking with some of my fellow travellers about how preposterous it would be if there were to be an eclipse to celebrate the opening of the festival.    The laugh was on us.    No sooner had the moon reached its fullness above the horizon, it’s perfect rotundity was invaded by a dark shadow.    We were in for a total eclipse of the moon.    For me, the whole event was already skirting the limits of belief before the great Lighting Engineer in the Sky pulled out this marvel for us.    The eclipse seemed like the stuff of fantasy and fairy-tales.    We were in for a truly magical spectacle.

When Lo’Jo took the stage they seemed nervous.    A potent cocktail of fatigue, prolonged excitement and first night nerves produced a jumpy set, which nonetheless seemed to go down a storm with the Touaregs.   They didn’t exactly clap.   That’s not their style.   With Tamashek audiences it seems to be all or nothing.   Until the moment of abandon comes, they will just look on in silent impenetrability, which is very unnerving if you’re not used to it.   Then, if the music is having the required effect, they will flip on a coin and start hollering, shouting and stamping out their appreciation.   This approach definitely unnerved Lo’Jo even further but they kept things steady and proceeded through a set comprising several totally new numbers, which showed a great deal of courage.   The singing of Nadja and Yamina Nid el Mourid, the two sisters, was especially highly appreciated.   At the end of their set, their relief was palpable.

The evening culminated in a performance by the undoubted stars of the whole show, Tinariwen.   This outfit is the pride of the desert.   Every man, woman, boy and girl from Timbuktu to Tamanrasset and beyond can sing at least some of their songs word for word.   Each member of Tinariwen has his aura, his legend and his mystique.   Ibrahima, one of the founders of the group is a thin, world-weary looking man with a very mid-70s looking Afro.   The story goes that, as a boy, he witnessed his father being murdered by Malian soldiers.   In the late 70s, when the Sahel and southern Saharan regions were being throttled by drought and poverty, he left for Tamanrasset in Algeria and then joined one of Ghadaffi’s training camps in southern Lybia.   There he met Hassan and Intayedan, the other founding members of the group.   In between courses in Islam, Arab nationalism, socialism and freedom-fighting the young dispossessed Touaregs would drink tea, play cards, tell stories, kill time and above all….sing songs on the guitar.   A whole new style took root in those camps, based loosely on traditional Touareg music and the harsh melodies of the one-stringed Touareg violin, but also incorporating influences such as Bob Marley, the rebels of the Moroccan new wave like Nass El Ghiwane, Bob Dylan together with other disparate influences, both western and middle eastern, which managed to penetrate that far into the desert.    The new style was and is still known simply as ‘guitar’, because the instrument is so central to both the music and image.    Ibrahima is an intense and quiet man.   You get the impression that life has dealt him enough blows to last one hundred lifetimes and your natural instinct is to respect that and rejoice in the fact that at least music is there to communicate his stories.

Japonais in 2001. (c) Nadia Nid El Mourid 2001

Then there is Mohamed ‘Le Japonais’, so called because he has the features of a Mongol warrior.   His deep sunk eyes and high cheek bones seem to belong to another world.   The only explanation I heard for his extraordinary physiognomy is that Japanese and Chinese engineers used to work on oil installations in the desert in the 50s and 60s and that maybe one of them is a relation.   This story seemed too far fetched.    ‘Le Japonais’ is also intense but in contrast to Ibrahima, talkative as well.   He was fresh from a spell in the Gao penitentiary where he had been put after running amok with a stick of dynamite in a drunken stupor.    Like the rest of the group, he gave the impression of placid steel with a hint of uncontrollable fire hidden below the surface.    His reputation as a fine and profound poet is widespread.  In fact, the poetic quality of Tinariwen’s lyrics was often alluded to by all who knew them well.    After ‘Le Japonais’ came Hassan, aka ‘Le Lion du Desert’, who was the oldest member of the group and a veteran of Ghadaffi’s training camps.    I never got to know much about this man except that the fierce spark in his eye was more likely to ignite wry good humor and uncontrollable laughs than anger.   He seemed to be more economic with his words than his smiles and was universally liked and respected by the others.    After Hassan came Abdallah, aka ‘le Catastrophe’.   Why and how he became saddled with such an unfortunate nickname I never found out.   Abdallah was the youngest member of the group and a favourite with the women.   He was reputedly adept in lyrical love-making and his voice was one of the finest in the group.   He was born into a family of devout ‘marabouts’, or muslim holy men and his decision to pursue a career in music has caused a rift with his nearest and dearest which continues to fester.   When I interviewed Abdallah a few days later, he made a deep impression on me with his rare combination of kindness, good humor, humility and ferocity.   Placid steel.   All the members of Tinariwen have that same irresistible aura of fierce politeness and inviolable honour, derived no doubt from having faced down moments of extreme danger during their lives.

None more so than the already legendary Kheddou, hero of the rebellion and saviour of the PA system.   It is said that Kheddou used to go into battle with his guitar strapped to his back and his Kalashnikov in his hands….. an image to make The Clash green with envy.    This tall lean man, with brilliant eyes sunk deep into a rugged face, had seen action in southern Lebanon as a mercenary in the pay of the Hizbollah movement.    Once, his wounded body had been doused in petrol and he owed his life to a faulty lighter.    Legends about Kheddou were thick and numerous, but only in the mouths of others.    The man himself was too modest to talk about his own exploits.   On stage Kheddou drew the most applause and adulation.   He played the guitar fluidly and effortlessly, like a cheched up acolyte of Ali Farka Toure, but somehow meaner and leaner.   He was also a fantastic minimal bass player.   Tinariwen produced a magical effect on the crowd causing the young Touaregs to stamp and dance with abandon in front of the stage.   It was clear that these men were their heroes and mentors.   The atmosphere of the evening was similar to that of a blues dance in Bristol or south London….grave appreciation and wild abandon.   There were few extrovert displays of cosy friendliness.   I felt that I owed it to the occasion to keep my wits about me.

Standing in front of the stage felt like being on a minute pleasure boat in the middle of a vast and empty ocean.   The festival site was just a speck of laughter, dancing and colour in the surrounding darkness.   At one moment I decided to walk off onto the plain to take a leak.   Privacy is impossible on these flat and endless plains.   Everyone can see your business.   Touareg men have this agile knack of squatting down like women when they urinate so as to minimise their exposure.    I just stood up like a scare-crow and let flow.    The silence engulfed the distant music and the air drowned the sounds in its silvery ether.    This was undoubtedly the strangest and most bewitching night of music I had ever experienced.

Thus ended the first of three days of superb music and unforgettable experiences.    In the following 48 hours there were camel races, dune treks, a lot of talking, listening, sleeping in the midday heat and some excellent performances by Azawad, Super Onze de Gao, Tinariwen, Lo’Jo and Justin Adams amongst many others.   Relatively few people experienced the Festival in the Desert but all of them took home memories that will prove as durable and precious as a 24-carat diamonds.    The event proved that you don’t have to be ‘big’ in the classic sense to dream and achieve big things.    After a lifetime of surviving on the breadline in order to have the freedom to play what they want, where they want, Lo’Jo have faced down their biggest challenge.   Unless they get booked to play a festival on the moon, it’s unlikely that any live concert proposition, wherever it may be, will faze them.    Sang froid….or what.    For the local musicians and cultural activists, the Festival was a lifeline in the latest phase of their long struggle.    Many of the old combatants now realise that the fight must be pursued with the weapons of media and mass communications, rather than swords and Kalashnikovs.   Up until now theirs has been a largely hidden war, known to only a few mainly French desert enthusiasts and experts.   On the back of the festival there have been prominent features in the French daily Liberation, The Times of England, Uncut Magazine and Billboard.    A film is being prepared for broadcast on the Franco / German TV channel Arte.    The recordings of Tinariwen are likely to surface either this year or early next year as a CD with European or even worldwide distribution.    These are major victories in a propaganda war which has only really just begun.    Despite their geographical isolation the Touaregs are astute and aware political observers.    Listening to the BBC world service is a favourite pastime and they are acutely aware that they need to use these new weapons of mass communication if they are to have any hope to achieving their aims.   As one of Tinariwen songs go:  “If I could sing so that those in London could hear, then the whole world would hear my song.”

Andy Morgan.  (c) 2001
First published in the EFWMF Newsletter – May 2001

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

  2 comments for “FESTIVAL IN THE DESERT – 2001, A Saharan Odyssey

  1. Elke Nachtigall
    August 6, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    Excellent sing of the time! I just digged it out of the dust to find out about the start up of “festival au desert”. Very good work!

  2. October 30, 2013 at 1:29 am

    I will immediately clutch your rss feed as I can’t to find your e-mail subscription hyperlink or newsletter service.
    Do you’ve any? Please permit me recognise so that I could subscribe.
    Thanks.

Leave a Reply